If you work, you’ve had to make decisions on the job about where and how to invest. You’ve done a cost-benefit analysis of targeting a certain market or prioritized where you are going to invest program dollars. In fact, you probably make dozens of such decisions every week. And, you’ve been doing that for a long time—making choices about where to go to school, where to live, what car to buy.So why, when it comes to motherhood and career, do we suddenly think that the rules don’t apply? Why do we continue to use ‘balance’ as a euphemism for ‘having it all’ and, worse, a stick to beat ourselves up with?
The truth is that because women have unprecedented opportunities today, we are forced to make hard choices. Author Mark Manson says, “In a bizarre and backwards way, people back in the day could 'have it all.' They had it all simply for the fact that there was nothing else for them to have.”
Many of us are conditioned to believe that ‘having it all’ is an achievable nirvana, that it means a fixed set of goals and metrics, and that once attained, all the other working moms there will smile knowingly at each other; ‘having it all’ is more like ‘deciding what you want and then enjoying what you have’.
As a channel chief at HP, I have a big job. I also have two teenagers—another big job. So, I say resoundingly, yes, you can have kids and a career, but like with anything else in life, no, you can’t have it all.
Howard Stevenson, former chairman of Harvard Business Publishing, husband, and father, uses an analogy to illustrate how various opportunities, responsibilities, and desires can compete for your resources. It’s like walking on a balance beam while trying to juggle an egg, a crystal glass, a knife, and other fragile and dangerous objects. As you accumulate more responsibilities and opportunities, you’ll have to drop something to stay on the beam. We need to consciously decide what we’ll give up, instead of risking dropping the most important item—or falling off.
While I believe in the value of a mentor, I haven’t been blessed with one. Instead I’ve cobbled together a philosophy gleaned from watching, listening, and learning from others. Examples of doing things well or approaching a commitment in a way that I admire and I think would work well for me.
Start by carefully looking at the various roles you fill and things that are most important to you. These might include family, friends, health and fitness, material possessions, religion or spiritual pursuits, volunteer, and hobbies such as travel, cooking or gardening, in addition to your career.
For each role, ask yourself what you want to accomplish, how important is it relative to the other roles and how much of your resourcesdo you want to invest in it. You also need to be brutally honest with yourself about what you are willing to sacrifice, either short- or long-term to achieve a stated goal. For instance, you might be willing to divert time away from your family for several months to tackle the learning curve at a new job, or you might pass up a promotion to have dinner with your kids every night.
Once you have a crystalline view of your priorities and what and how you are willing to invest in each one, then do two important things:
- Communicate. Share appropriately with your key constituents (family, colleagues, friends, communities, organizations) about your expectations, desires, goals and tradeoffs. Solicit their input and be willing to re-evaluate your priorities. Because of my hectic travel schedule, in my family we long ago agreed to celebrate birthdays on the closest weekend. Several years ago, my son shared that it was really important to him that I be home on the day of his birthday. I’ve since managed my schedule to honor that request. For my daughter, weekend celebrations are just fine.
- Commit. Whatever you are doing, be 100% present and distraction-free. If I’m having dinner with my family, the phone, email, text can wait an hour. At work, I’m equally fully engaged. Of course, there are times when an emergency or worry might bleed over across the boundaries, but for the most part, I’m pretty brutal about respecting the boundaries I create.
Obviously, priorities will shift and change over time; it’s up to you how often you need to re-assess. Life happens, so some of those priorities might be juggled every day. But with an intentional plan, you’ll have true north for making decisions as new opportunities and responsibilities present. Finally, it goes without saying that any career-minded mother needs a tribe to succeed. Spouses, family, friends, nannies, cleaners: build yourself an ecosystem that respects and supports your self-defined “all”, and choose to be part of others, if that matters to you.
Let’s reinvent the definition of success: it’s not about having it all. It’s about doing the work to decide what’s right and best for you and then thoughtfully and deliberately prioritizing, investing in, evaluating and adjusting those priorities. Instead of striving endlessly and unsatisfyingly for someone else’s idea of what of ‘all’ is, could or should be, create and live your own.